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Menorahs and memory: from dark to light

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An old man is walking in the dead of night, holding a lantern to help him navigate the darkness of a deserted alleyway. Observing a group of young people struggling to open a door, he approaches to shine the light in their direction. The group of thieves, who have no interest in being seen, begin to beat the man, and chase him away with insults.

The world out there is dark at the moment. Pitch dark. Darker than any time in my living memory. But I grew up on stories of dark. Our history is filled with dark episodes. From our genesis as a people in Egypt, through oppression by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Then there was the Spanish Inquisition, persecutions, expulsions, and blood libels. And I was born in the shadow of the most unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust, among survivors who rolled up their sleeves to put on tefillin in shul in the morning, revealing their tattooed arms.

The common factor of all this darkness isn’t the obscurity. It’s the light that shone through, no doubt the reason these stories were being shared with me. A light of hope, deliverance, faith, purity, and morality. They were tales of bravery, of continued study of our holy Torah in impossible circumstances, of matzah baking, tefillin laying, and candle lightings under the most adverse of conditions.

Deep down, it was about how we remained faithful to our mission of being an “or lagoyim” (a light unto the nations), a beacon of faith, morality, social justice, and ethical life. Yes, like that of the old man in the story, the light wasn’t always appreciated, and we were beaten up for staying the course of the high road.

Even in the current conflict that embroils us, we’re proud of the Israel Defense Forces, behaving at all times in keeping with international law and rules of warfare and taking precautions to keep collateral casualties to a minimum. Which other army pauses to provide formula and incubators to babies being evacuated from a hospital intensive-care unit that sits above terrorist headquarters? Or provides detailed maps for civilians to take shelter ahead of attacks?

We’re celebrating the Festival of Lights in the wake of the atrocities of a pogrom in our lifetime, something we were convinced had been relegated into the realm of history. But the mitzvah is to light the Chanukah lights after nightfall, when it’s indeed dark outside.

Powerful images come to mind. First that of the Maccabees rededicating the Holy Temple and lighting the menorah with oil from a single undefiled vessel.

Then there’s the iconic photograph, taken in Kiel in 1931 in the home of the town’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Akiva Posner. The chanukiah is sitting on the windowsill, facing a building across the road adorned with Nazi flags. On the back of the photograph, the rabbi’s wife wrote the following, “The flag says, ‘Death to Judah’, so the light answers, ‘Judah will last forever.’” Just a year ago on the second night of Chanukah, the Posners’ grandchildren lit this chanukiah in Berlin in the presence of German President Frank Walter Steinmeier.

A more recent photo, gone viral in the past few days, shows a menorah being hoisted atop a building in Gaza, no doubt a huge morale booster for the troops who seem set to spend the holiday on the front.

Then I came across a social media post by Israeli journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir. It’s a picture of a chanukiah, at first glance a typical child’s holiday project. But a closer look sends shivers up my spine. For on each of the nine branches is inscribed the name of a locality that heartbreakingly became a scene of tragedy on 7 October: “Re’im, Keren Shalom, Zikim, Sderot, Kfar Aza, Be’eri, Nahal Oz, Holit, Nirim”. From the darkness emerges the light.

Judah will live forever.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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